Thousands of Georgia, Alabama students leaving millions in college money on the table | Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

It’s less than two weeks before the priority application deadline, and Georgia and Alabama high school seniors lag behind most of their American peers to receive the most college financial aid this year.

According to the latest data from the National College Access Network, Georgia is 47th and Alabama is 43rd in the ranking of states by percentage of high school seniors who submitted a completed Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Only 33.9 percent of high school seniors in Georgia and 36.0 percent in Alabama have submitted a completed FAFSA this year. Tennessee has the highest percentage, 71.2; Alaska has the lowest, 24.9.

March 1 is FAFSA’s “priority” deadline, meaning students who submit their application by then will have the best chance to get the best assistance package for which they qualify. The federal deadline is June 30, and the deadline to change an application is Sept. 14. Students should check with the colleges they are interested in attending to determine whether those institutions have different deadlines.

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Last year, $24 billion in available financial aid at the nation’s colleges wasn’t awarded because not enough students applied, according to the Alabama State Department of Education.

“One of the biggest reasons families don’t complete the FAFSA is that they don’t think they will qualify for financial aid,” Kristina Scott, executive director of Alabama Possible, said in the department’s news release. “However, 85 percent of families who complete the FAFSA do get help paying for college.”

Alabama Possible is a nonprofit organization dedicated to removing barriers to prosperity – barriers such as folks thinking lack of money must mean lack of education.

“Financial aid is limited,” Scott said, “and that’s why everyone who plans to go to college in the fall should complete their FAFSA before the March 1 priority deadline.”

Walt Rabon, media relations specialist for the Georgia Student Finance Commission, told the Ledger-Enqurier in an email, “While we can’t definitively state why Georgia’s rank is such, we do know that many students struggle with the form’s complexity and length. We can report that GSFC is keenly focused on increasing the completion rates in Georgia. GSFC actively promotes FAFSA completion through its College Goal Georgia events, which are hosted statewide and invite students and parents on site for one-on-one assistance.”

Submitting a completed FAFSA makes students eligible for grants, loans and work-study programs. Even students with merit or athletic scholarships may qualify for money to help pay for housing, books, meal plans and transportation, the ALSDE news release says.

The good news is that the FAFSA application rate in Georgia and Alabama is improving. Compared to this time last year, Georgia’s rate increased by 7.7 percent, 11th-best improvement nationally, and Alabama’s increased by 8.8 percent, ninth-best improvement nationally.

In Georgia, to be considered for the HOPE Scholarship or the Zell Miller Scholarship, students must submit a FAFSA or a GSFAPPS, the Georgia Student Finance Application. The FAFSA must be completed each year, but the GSFAPPS is good for seven years.

Students don’t have to be accepted to a college or apply to a college before submitting a FAFSA, but they must designate which schools they want to receive their financial information.

“The main thing to keep in mind when submitting the FAFSA are the deadline dates,” Rabon said, “though each college may set its own deadlines for priority consideration.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, here is when the FAFSA can be submitted for a given school year and what tax information is required:

▪ Students attending college July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018: FAFSA can be submitted Oct. 1, 2016 through June 30, 2018; requires 2015 tax information.

▪ Students attending college July 1, 2018 through June 30, 2019: FAFSA can be submitted Oct. 1, 2017 through June 30, 2019; requires 2016 tax information.

▪ Students attending college July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020: FAFSA can be submitted Oct. 1, 2018 through June 2020; requires 2017 tax information.

Mark Rice: 706-576-6272, @markricele

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